A seven-year old boy died Saturday after an attack by two pit bulls in Lowell. Although the investigation is ongoing, authorities say the boy entered a fenced-in area where the pit bulls were located, and he was killed before the police arrived. One of the dogs was euthanized, and the other remains with animal control. 

Joe Mathieu spoke with Northeastern Law Professor and WGBH Legal Analyst Daniel Medwed about the case. 

Joe Mathieu: I realize criminal charges have not been filed yet, but back in 2011, a city ordinance in Lowell regulating pit bulls was overturned by state legislation. Is it possible the owners could be charged with homicide?

Daniel Medwed: In theory, yes, over the years there have been a number of dog mauling cases across the country that resulted in homicide charges. The issue in these cases often boils down to two things: First, what was the owner’s mental state? Did he or she know about the dog’s dangerous propensities or, at a minimum, should the owner have been aware of these proclivities? Second, given this awareness, did the owner take sufficient precautions to protect neighbors and others from injury? So, depending on the circumstances here, there could be a homicide case, quite possibly manslaughter, based on the idea that the owner may have consciously disregarded a substantial and unjustifiable risk by keeping the pit bulls in this location without adequate safeguards.

JM: How do we determine whether an owner took sufficient precautions? What factors do we look for?

DM: It’s a very fact-specific inquiry. Here, I think the details surrounding the fence might prove to be very important in the prosecutors’ charging decision about manslaughter. How high was it, how secure was it, were the animals further restrained within the yard? There is a famous case from California, People v. Michael Berry, where the owner had kept a dangerous pit bull chained in his yard in a neighborhood with young children and that wasn’t considered enough.

JM: How important is the fact that this incident occurred on private property rather than a public space? In other words, could trespassing play a role, especially given the age of the child?

DM: Yes, especially if the victim’s family were to try to sue in civil court for money damages. Massachusetts has very specific rules governing so-called “dog bite” cases. The owner of a dog is liable for personal injury caused by the animal unless the injured person was trespassing or provoked the animal. The age of seven is legally insignificant – children under the age of seven are presumed not to be capable of committing trespass, which makes sense, they likely don’t understand the significance of property lines.  But here the boy was seven, not under seven, so — seemingly — the trespass might prove a barrier to any financial recovery.

JM: Leaving aside the issue of trespass, does it matter whether the owner knew about the dog’s violent tendencies?  If the owner had no idea about the potential violence, does that relieve that person of liability?

DM: Let’s look at the civil and criminal cases separately. As for the civil case, Massachusetts is what’s known as a “strict liability” state on this issue. It doesn’t matter whether the owner had prior knowledge — when it comes to civil liability, you might be on the hook even without any fault on the part of the owner, even for a first bite. So, the owner’s knowledge doesn’t matter. But it does matter regarding the criminal case — whether the owner knew, or should have known of the risk, is crucial in determining whether there was culpability.

JM: What a tragedy.  I’m sure we will be consulting you again as the investigation unfolds. Thank you.

This transcript has been edited for clarity.